As every TV court drama assures us, there is a right to an attorney in a criminal proceeding. However, in a civil proceeding, there is no such right. In some civil cases, an attorney is not even allowed: Small claims courts, where the dollar value is below the state’s statutory amount, prohibit attorneys in the courtroom. If the claimant or defendant in a civil case cannot afford an attorney, there is no requirement for one to be provided. But legal assistance is available, and pro se litigants can prevail in court if they keep a few things in mind.
- Get help early. Legal aid exists everywhere, and online, and the savvy pro se litigant will find one early and use them often. Remember too that the clerks at the courthouse cannot provide legal advice—but they can explain what documents are needed for a particular case, and what the deadlines are for filing.
- Meet all deadlines. There is no leniency for pro se litigants who miss their filing deadlines. If a document is not filed “timely”—if it is not date-stamped with the court on the date and time it is supposed to be there—then the pro se litigant will not be given any grace period. Create a calendar for filings and follow it.
- Do the research on the facts of the case. Pro se litigants often believe they know what their case is “about,” only to learn it is really about something different when they reach court. In an insurance case, for instance, it is important to be sure the suit names all essential parties. It is not necessary to know the legal terminology, but it is necessary to know who to sue.
- Be courteous to everyone. Not only to the judge in the case, but to the opposing counsel, if there is one, the opposing party, even the court clerks, and staff. In small claims cases especially, tensions run high, and the temptation is there to give vent to one’s emotions. Resist the urge, and things run much smoother.
Most importantly, the pro se litigant needs to be aware of his or her own limitations. Pro se means representing one’s self; it does not mean doing it all alone. Take advantage of any and all legal aid available, and the case has a much better chance of a positive resolution.